Wednesday, March 26, 2008

ohel and ahalan

In the post on aloe, we quoted the theory that the Hebrew ahal אהל derives from the Sanskrit aguruh. This theory seems to be fairly widely accepted. Even Steinberg, who generally strives to find Hebrew origins for Biblical words recognizes it. But he does have some difficulty doing so. This is from his entry in Milon HaTanach (written in the 1890s):

The name in the bible refers to Aquilaria agalacha, a tree from the Thymelaeaceae family that grows in India... Linguists claim that the origin of the name ahal comes from Eastern India, where tree originated, and is called there aghil.

But it is possible that the ancient (Phoenician) traders from Tzur and Tzidon gave the name, because the tree appears to shine like glass, which fits the meaning of the root אהל.
In his entry on the root אהל, he says it means "to shine", and is related to the roots הל and הלל, which have the same meaning. He quotes Iyov 25:5, where יאהיל means "is bright".

From here he connects the root to ohel אוהל meaning "tent". How? Because the white sheets of the tent shine as well.

Reading this now, Steinberg's theory looks rather fanciful, particularly considering no one else seems to agree with any of it. But when the origin of a word is still up for debate, it's not as easy to draw that conclusion. Let's look at another word that is claimed to be related to ohel.

Joel Hoffman, in his Jerusalem Post language column, writes:

[W]hen Israelis greet one another on the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it is not shalom or a longer variation of it, but rather the colloquial ahalan that is most often heard.

Ahalan, borrowed directly from Arabic, comes from ahal, one of many words for "family." (The cognate Hebrew word, ohel, means "tent," that is a place where a family lived.) What better greeting could be offered to a weary desert traveler than to be welcomed into the protective shade of a tent or the warm company of family. Indeed, Abraham is known for his generosity in welcoming strangers into his family tent. And though tents are now rare in Israel, the cordial greeting pays homage to a form of ancient hospitality. Some speakers add wasahlan, "and to the plain," perhaps contrasting with, say, rocky mountains, and therefore alluding to a place of comfort. A loose translation of the pair might be, "make yourself at home" and "make yourself comfortable."
Stahl and Even Shoshan both say that Hebrew ohel (tent) and Arabic ahl (family, tribe) are related. Even Shoshan connects it as well to Akkadian alu - city or village. This article notes:

Oppenheim and Reiner indicate that alu had four basic meanings:
"1. city; 2. city as a social organization; 3. village, manor, estate; 4. fort, military strong point" (Assyrian Dictionary, volume 1, part I, 379). In each case, alu refers in some respect to either a sedentary dwelling or sedentary dweller (ibid., 379-390). This may indicate a sedentarized origin for the nonsedentary Hebrew 'ohel.
However, Klein writes that ohel is "usually connected with but probably not related to Arabic 'ahl (= relatives, kin, kinsfolk, adherents, inhabitants, people)." He goes on to write, "compare Egyptian '(a)har(a)" - but I'm not sure what that's supposed to show us.

Kaddari also dismisses a connection. Ben-Yehuda at first says that the Arabic verb ahal means to marry or to welcome someone - i.e. to take them into the tent, and from here 'ahl means "family". But then he goes on to say that the scholar Theodor Nöldeke rejects "any relationship or similarity between the Hebrew ohel and the Arabic 'ahl".

What's interesting here is that Ben Yehuda, Klein and Kaddari don't explain why ohel and ahl aren't related. It could be that if I understood Klein's Egyptian reference or read Noldeke I'd see their proofs. But it could just be that simply because the two words look similar, and one could make a connection - doesn't mean that one should. And that's probably the advice they would have given Steinberg as well...

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